By M K Bhadrakumar
For such a high-level exchange after such a pronounced gap of nearly half a century, Beijing actually said very little indeed about the unannounced four-hour visit to Kabul on Saturday by Zhou Yongkang, the ninth ranking member of the Politburo and China's security boss - although it pointedly took note that the "last [such] visit was made by late Chinese leader Liu Shaoqi in 1966 when he was the President of China".
Zhou's senior status make Beijing's reticence seem all the more curious, particularly as the Hindu Kush and the adjoining Pamirs and the Central Asian steppes are nowadays teeming with the "foreign devils on the Silk Road".
An air of suspense hangs around Zhou's visit, especially since his itinerary originally didn't include the stop-over in Kabul. He was to have proceeded to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, following a two-day visit to Singapore, but diverted to Kabul for a four-hour halt. The detour, of course, makes the visit at once historical and topical.
The context of the visit needs to be carefully surveyed. From a long-term perspective, a joint declaration between China and Afghanistan on "the establishment of a strategic and cooperative partnership" issued in Beijing after a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in June marked a new step in the development of the bilateral relations. The declaration identified security as one of the "five pillars that will underpin" the Sino-Afghan partnership and affirmed that the two countries would "intensify exchanges and cooperation" in security, including "enhancing intelligence exchanges".
No 'Apocalypse Now' …
With the "transition" in Afghanistan set to shift up a gear through 2013 - as the last residues of the United States' "surge" are pulled back from the war theater and as the 2014 deadline approaches for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to withdraw - Beijing seems destined to play a larger role. In terms of China's national priorities over the development of its eastern regions, especially Xinjiang, and the consolidation of its rapidly expanding economic investments in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Beijing has no choice but to project itself as a stakeholder in the stabilization of Afghanistan. In a brief commentary on Zhou's visit to Kabul, Global Times newspaper noted:
Within China, there is also heated debate over the role that China should play … But it is generally agreed that the deterioration of the Afghan domestic situation will benefit nobody; for China, the stability of its northwestern bordering regions will be directly influenced and overseas Chinese in the region will face greater security problems.Zhou underlined in a written statement as he arrived in Kabul, "It is in line with the fundamental interests of the two peoples for China and Afghanistan to strengthen a strategic and cooperative partnership, which is also conducive to regional peace, stability and development."
Historically, Afghanistan has been a nightmare for many big powers. As a neighbor of Afghanistan, China has a keen interest in the security of this region. How to help Afghanistan walk out of the shadow of long-term wartime chaos poses a big challenge to China's diplomacy.
Clearly, the accent was on the bilateral cooperation with the assurance held out to any third parties concerned that Sino-Afghan cooperation would be a factor of stability for the region.
How does China view the Afghan situation? The last major statement on Afghanistan by China was made hardly a week before Zhou's visit to Kabul on Sunday, during the United Nations Security Council discussion in New York on Afghanistan. The striking aspect of the speech by Ambassador Li Baodong was its underlying tone of hope and positive expectations.
Li said, "The peace and reconstruction process in Afghanistan was achieving positive results, the transfer of security responsibilities to national forces was moving along smoothly, the Afghan economy was improving, and trade and cooperation with other countries was being scaled up."
However, Li indirectly criticized NATO's strategy in flagging that the transfer of security responsibilities must proceed slowly and saying the international community must continue to help to improve the security situation. Indeed, he put on record China's serious concerns over recent incidents of violence, especially the high number of civilian casualties, and he called on NATO forces to conduct its operations according to international law so as to ensure the safety and protection of civilians.
The most interesting part of Li's speech was in articulating China's belief that Afghanistan's stabilization needs to be sought through greater integration with the region "in line with the principle of mutual benefit and cooperation" and by "making full use of existing mechanisms" such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Evidently, Beijing doesn't subscribe to the inevitability of "Apocalypse Now" in the Hindu Kush in the post-2014 period. Suffice to say, Zhou's visit to Kabul needs to be weighed first and foremost as a strong affirmation of support for Karzai's government. From Beijing's viewpoint, Karzai has been a reliable friend who walked the extra mile to boost Sino-Afghan relations.
… nor any zero-sum game
From Karzai's perspective, support from Beijing may already have become irreplaceable, more so at the present juncture when his equations with Washington have again become problematic and uncertain. NATO has summarily suspended the training for the Afghan police force and the Afghan defense ministry has apparently scaled back NATO's involvement in joint operations with the Afghan forces below battalion level.
There have been several instances in the recent weeks indicative of the poor chemistry between Kabul and Washington. The most glaring instance was the concern voiced by Karzai about the security pacts signed with the US earlier this year. Negotiations over the long-term US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 are due to commence in three weeks time. At such a juncture, Zhou's visit, coming as it did on the eve of Karzai's trip to the US, most certainly helps the Afghan leader gain more negotiating space vis-a-vis Washington.
Karzai feels particularly agitated over the excessive interest that the US takes in influencing Afghan domestic politics, which is entering a delicate phase even as jockeying has begun in right earnest over the Afghan presidential elections due in end-2014. Karzai told Zhou, "China is a good and honest friend of Afghanistan … We are looking forward to a broader and strong cooperation with China."
Zhou reciprocated that the Chinese government fully respects the right of the Afghan people to choose their own path of development and will actively participate in Afghanistan's reconstruction.
Zhou signed three agreements on increased security and economic cooperation, including a Memorandum of Understanding on an "action plan" for the implementation of the joint declaration of June 8, an agreement with the Afghan finance ministry on a US$150 million aid package, and a deal with the Afghan Interior Ministry to "train, fund and equip Afghan police".
The Global Times said the security agreement aims to "protect the security of China's own projects" in Afghanistan. The state-owned China Metallurgical Group operates the $3 billion Aynak copper mine in the eastern Logar province in Afghanistan, which has been targeted by insurgent groups.
The three agreements as such didn't warrant a high-level visit, whose main purport seems to have been political. Zhou's visit has most probably sealed an institutional framework of intelligence liaison connecting Beijing and Kabul in real time. Needless to say, this matters a great deal for China. It is following India's example to tap into the excellent "database" of the Afghan intelligence, which has every reason, historically speaking, to be well clued in on a 24x7 basis on the militant groups operating out of Pakistan.
Without doubt, Karzai has signaled on his part Kabul's political priorities also in the post-2014 period. China's close relationship with Pakistan makes it a valuable ally for Kabul in its despairing efforts to moderate Islamabad's policies. The US used to perform such a role before, but today Washington is barely coping with its own woes involving Pakistan.
However, as a Russian commentary put it, "Hamid Karzai will have to take some pains in order to put up a good show for his Chinese partners. After all, the Americans are not going to surrender their positions to the Chinese."
This appears a motivated opinion. On the other hand, the big question is whether what is unfolding could be regarded as a zero-sum game at all - notwithstanding the entire panorama of the US' "rebalancing" in the Asia-Pacific and Beijing's wariness over it. Arguably, when it comes to the stabilization of Afghanistan, China and the US are still on the same side - and persuading Pakistan to cooperate in the search of a durable settlement will also remain a common objective for the two big powers.
The speeches made by Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and by Chinese UN Ambassador Li Baodong at the UN Security Council last Monday present a study in contrast. Russia is incessantly taunting the US over the futility of the latter's Afghan strategy, poking fun at it, rubbishing it while constantly asking probing questions for which there are of course no easy answers.
In contrast, Li offered constructive criticism, with a clear cut and purposive political objective in view. Russia is worked up about the issue of the US bases in Afghanistan, whereas China, which could also be sharing Moscow's concerns, is going about the minefield very differently and with great diplomatic aplomb. Yet, at the end of the day, it is Russia - and not China - that is cooperating with NATO in Afghanistan at a practical level by offering efficient, dependable and open-ended transit facilities for NATO to ferry its supplies.
Actually, China is openly insisting that it isn't involved in a zero sum game with the US and that, on the contrary, the interests of China and the US and its allies mesh as regards the stabilization of Afghanistan, and there is no fundamental contradiction as such. Coincidence or not, just last week, the influential Chinese think tanker Pan Guang, vice chairman of Shanghai Center for International Studies at Shanghai Academy, made an unprecedented presentation before the American strategic community on the topic, "Understanding China's Role in Central Asia and Afghanistan." This happened just four days before Zhou's unannounced trip to Kabul.
Pan is easily recognizable for strategic analysts as an authoritative voice on Track II. But what makes things quite spicy is that he also happens to be a key adviser to Zhou's ministry in Beijing on Central Asia and Afghanistan (although his area of specialization used to be Israel).
Pan spoke for over an hour on China's role in Central Asia and Afghanistan. He focused on China's interest in fighting terrorism and extremism in the region as well as China's interests in containing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, promoting energy and economic development, and supporting Afghanistan in its post-war reconstruction. The running theme of his presentation was that like the United States, China is interested in tackling issues such as transnational crime, illegal immigration, environmental degradation, water resource shortage, and emerging public health issues.
Pan acknowledged that Beijing has different views of political reform in Central Asia, the alignment of energy pipelines in the region, and the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. At the same time, he concluded that both China and the US are playing an increasingly crucial role in Central Asia, where they have common and divergent interests, cooperation and competition.
A profound message
Broadly echoing Pan's thought process, the Global Times summed up Zhou's visit: "China has a good opportunity to boost its global image and fulfill its international obligations. While many Western strategists stick to their mentality of dominating world politics, China is making pragmatic moves to safeguard the interests of not only itself but also the whole region."
A redeeming feature of Zhou's sudden Kabul trip that may get overlooked in the overall excitement over it but could be of pivotal importance for regional security is that it took place at a period when Afghan-Pakistan tensions have sharply escalated.
In fact, only last week, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul warned the UN Security Council that continued Pakistani shelling of Afghanistan's border provinces jeopardized bilateral relations, "with potential negative consequences for necessary bilateral cooperation for peace, security and economic development in our two countries and the wider region".
Curiously, government-owned China Daily prominently featured a Xinhua report on Sunday - even as Zhou was heading for Kabul - on the Afghan parliament's endorsement of Kabul's latest plan to lodge a formal complaint to the UN Security Council over any Pakistani border shelling.
The lengthy Xinhua report said, "Pakistan has been occasionally shelling the border areas in the eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces, forcing locals to flee their houses for shelters, a claim rejected by Pakistan." The curious part was that China Daily highlighted the relevant excerpts of Rassoul's condemnatory references to Pakistan in his speech at the UN Security Council last week.
Now, a tantalizing question arises: How would Beijing react to a complaint by Kabul to the UN Security Council regarding Pakistan's violation of Afghanistan's territorial integrity? The point is, the Sino-Afghan joint declaration on June 8 commits Beijing and Kabul to "firmly support each other on issues concerning national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity", and, to "enhance coordination and cooperation under the United Nations ... stay in contact and coordinate positions."
It would seem that Zhou's visit to Kabul in these troubled times also holds a profound message for the "all-weather friendship" between China and Pakistan.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.